2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Two boats, a plane, a stopping bus and a share taxi…from the coast to cowboy country

Reluctantly leaving the delights of Little Corn Island behind, we dragged ourselves out of bed to watch one more Caribbean sunrise, packed our bags and headed to the dock to catch the 6.30am panga to Big Corn Island.

Sunrise on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Sunrise on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

In a land where travel information is unreliable, we’d heard there was a ferry leaving Big Corn that evening for El Rama, a small river port 50km inland at the end of the Rio Escondido. There we’d be able to connect with a bus for our ultimate destination, Juigalpa – home of the Nicaraguan cowboy. El Rama wasn’t a place we wanted to spend more time than necessary, but a necessary destination for the rest of our travels.

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Approaching Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

The port area of Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

The port area of Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

There wasn’t a ferry, but a cargo boat was leaving Big Corn for the mainland. It was scheduled to set sail at 9pm (read anytime between 9pm and 3am) and would take twelve hours to reach El Rama. Unfortunately, we were reliably informed, it didn’t have any cabins. It did have some plastic chairs on deck, but the prospect of twelve hours riding Caribbean waves while trying to sleep on a plastic chair was too much to contemplate.

We jumped in a cab taking two other tourists to the airport to see if it was possible to fly to Bluefields, and get an onward panga to El Rama from there. We were lucky. The morning flight to Managua was stopping in Bluefields to pick up more people and there were empty seats on the Big Corn to Bluefields leg. We checked our bags and with minutes to spare headed to the departure gate.

The airport at Bluefields, Nicaragua

The airport at Bluefields, Nicaragua

So far so lucky. We arrived for the fourth time at Bluefields dock and found the panga service to El Rama at the end of a dirty passageway between people’s houses, a butchers shop and an open sewer. We’d just missed the boat by a few minutes – well it was still in the dock, but it already had twenty people in it. No room for a couple of gringos with luggage, we’d have to wait until there were enough people to fill another boat.

Two and a half hours later we were eighteen people and our boat was ready to depart, although not before the Nicaraguan army had body searched all the passengers and a sniffer dog had given our belongings the once-over. We got into the crowded boat and, thanks to being unceremoniously barged to the back of the queue, had to sit with our backs to the direction we were travelling.

The dock at Bluefields, Nicaragua

The dock at Bluefields, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

It was a fabulous two hour trip up the Rio Escondido. This is a poor region, many people live little more than a subsistence existence. As you motor up the river, heavy vegetation occasionally gives way to reveal simple wooden shacks without electricity or running water, miles from any services. Wooden canoes are a major form of transport. Closer to El Rama there were vast areas of forest cleared for the cultivation of cows, and some fairly large houses on these fincas.

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragua

The lazy Rio Escondido between Bluefields and El Rama, Nicaragu

El Rama wasn’t much to look at, just a few dirty streets leading from the port to the market area from where the buses to Juigalpa departed. Luckily, we’d arrived just in time to catch the ‘local service’ which would speed us along the 180km to Juigalpa. Four hours later we were still crawling towards Juigalpa, stopping so regularly to either pick up or drop off people that I began to wonder if we’d ever get there.

The sun set and, finally, fourteen hours after leaving Little Corn Island the bus dropped us and our baggage at an intersection on the main road.

Disoriented, hot and tired, we flagged down a share taxi and headed up a steep hill to Juigalpa’s main plaza. We arrived in a seriously subdued town. We’d forgotten that it was Sunday, pretty much everything in Juigalpa was closed and the streets deserted. No one seemed particularly keen to see us, even the receptionist at the hotel where we were the only guests. The only open restaurant in town greeted us with suppressed hostility.

Mural in Juigalpa, Nicaragua

Mural in Juigalpa, Nicaragua

We paid over-the-odds for ordinary food and terrible service. Figuring we’d probably seen all there was to see that evening and, deciding the town might feel a bit more inviting in the morning, went back to our unwelcoming hotel and got an early night…bringing to an end a very long day of travel, Nicaraguan style.

Little Corn Island, another Nicaraguan paradise in the Caribbean

After our time in Pearl Lagoon and on the Pearl Keys, its seemed unlikely that Nicaragua’s much-heralded Corn Islands would live up to their billing as some of the Caribbean’s finest islands only recently on the international travel map. We skipped the more developed Big Corn Island and headed straight to Little Corn Island, where I discovered just how wrong I was.

Little Corn Island demands superlatives. It’s beautiful, the ocean is all sparkling blues and turquoises, the seafood and rum are delicious and, perhaps best of all, there isn’t a single motor vehicle on the island. The only wheeled transport is by wheelbarrow or handcart.

The port of El Bluff en route to the Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The port of El Bluff en route to the Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island from the ocean, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island from the ocean, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Pangas on Big Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Pangas on Big Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

You can walk all around Little Corn on dirt tracks that criss-cross the forested interior en route to the ocean and not hear a sound other than birds, the wind and the waves. Its a rare experience these days to be unable to hear the ‘world’, and it creates a seductive tranquility. We stayed in a wooden cabana with refreshing sea breezes, a few steps from the warm waters of the Caribbean – from the veranda we watched sunrises to end all sunrises.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The island fun starts with the transport options to get there. You can fly directly to Big Corn Island, but we decided that taking one of the slow boats that make the five or six hour trip from Bluefields a couple of times a week would be more interesting. Once you arrive on Big Corn a panga, a small motorboat, will speed and jolt you across the 30km that separates Big Corn from Little Corn.

The panga we took normally holds twenty six; our panga was crammed to sinking-point with forty one passengers, nine of whom were standing. Regardless, our boat went at top speed across the water, crashing into fairly sizeable waves. While I was concentrating on trying to keep my spine intact, I didn’t notice the back half of the boat getting soaking wet. When we finally reached Little Corn a dozen people looked half drowned.

Welcome to the Caribbean…luckily, we arrived on Little Corn just in time to watch the sun set over the Caribbean.

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

70km from the mainland, the Corn Islands’ history reflects the history of this whole coast. The population are predominately English-Creole speakers of Afro-Caribbean descent, originally brought as slaves to grow corn (in Spanish the islands are called the Islas del Maiz). Despite early Spanish interest (Christopher Columbus stopped by in 1502), British pirates frequented these waters and made the islands their base. They became a British protectorate until 1894.

The culture of the islands reflects this history but, thanks to the current boom in tourism, this unique culture has changed in recent years with an influx of Spanish speakers from the mainland.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island is a small piece of paradise. Fresh seafood abounds, coconuts and pineapples grow and there is a natural aquifer providing fresh water – something seafarers from 1502 onwards appreciated. Tourism is putting pressure on fresh water resources, and Little Corn’s future may depend upon the island’s population being able to balance the needs of the environment against the need to develop the economy.

Many of the inhabitants of Little Corn are poor and live in small wooden houses or tin shacks. Take a walk in the right direction, away from the beaches and restaurants, and you can see the challenges facing many people and how tourism could easily become a divisive business if people don’t see any benefit from the predicable flood of tourists to the island in the next few years.

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

For the time being though, and hopefully for a long time to come, Little Corn Island is a wonderful place to spend a few days living out the Caribbean fantasy.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua